Children dressing up as skeletons, skulls made out of sweet jelly and white chocolate bones are all part of Hallowe’en, but, as with so many of our customs, these sorts of symbols are not new. It was thought that the veil between heaven and earth was particularly thin on the night before All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Day, and so it was then timely for us to remember our own mortality and to consider our life on earth. All Saints’ /Hallows’ Day is, of course, November 1st, and the evening before that All Hallows’ Evening, or Hallowe’en. Nowhere are we encouraged more to think about the afterlife than with memento mori – remember you have to die. And this is particularly true with some tombs such as that for Dean Fotherby at Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, erected in the seventeenth century (see right).
On Dean Fotherby’s tomb, the bones are in complete disarray, however on the tomb of Diana Warburton at St John the Baptist Church in Chester, erected also in the seventeenth century, her skeleton is modestly draped revealing only her upper chest and head and then her feet, (although her feet do seem rather large for her body and look a little as if they’re wrapped in bandages).
Mediæval Books of Hours also included a memento mori, as they contained, usually towards the end of the book, the Office of the Dead. This Office was recited before the Requiem or funeral Mass, and is a rather long section. The illustration to this Office in a Book of Hours usually depicted death or burial, with a shrouded corpse, or, as here, a draped coffin. The fact that Books of Hours were for lay people ensured that the owners would be familiar with the words of the Office which encouraged a reflection on mortality.
Death was also featured in some paintings. Dutch artist Harmen Steenwyck painted An Allegory of the Vanties of Human LIfe in about 1640 (now in the National Gallery). It is a very symbolic painting with the shell representing wealth, the musical instruments indicating the pleasures of the senses, books denoting human knowledge, the chronometer and lamp (which has just gone out) showing the frailty of human life, and all being dominated by the large skull in the foreground – a symbol of death. These paintings are called vanitas, after Ecclesiastes (Old Testament) ‘Vanity of vanities … all is vanity’ (‘Vanitas vanitatum … et omnia vantias’).